Robin Yassin-Kassab

Syria Speeding Up

with 7 comments

Three weeks ago I wrote that Syria was not about to experience a popular revolution. Although I’m no longer sure of anything after the events in Tunisia and Egypt (and Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain) – and although it’s made me unpopular in certain quarters – I’m sticking to my original judgement. No revolution in Syria just yet.

Until a month ago, I would have have agreed with Joshua Landis (quoted here) that many, perhaps a comfortable majority of Syrians were not particularly interested in ‘democracy.’ Before either I or Landis is accused of orientalism, let me say that human and civil rights are not identical with democracy. Any Syrian who knows he’s alive wants his (or her) human and civil rights respected, but many fear that ‘democracy’ would lead to sectarian fragmentation. This is an entirely logical fear: the ‘democracies’ to the west and east of Syria – Lebanon and Iraq – are strife-torn sectarian democracies. Sectarian identification remains a problem in Syria. A freedom-loving Alawi friend of mine was put off the failed ‘day of rage’ facebook group because he found so many anti-Alawi comments posted there. Other Syrians were put off when they realised that many of the posts came from Hariri groups in Lebanon.

Many Syrians fear that ‘destabilisation’ wouldn’t bring democracy anyway. When Hafez al-Asad died, most Syrians had contradictory feelings about Bashaar’s succession: on the one hand, the notion of a hereditary presidency was humiliating and absurd; on the other, young Bashaar seemed a better option than tank battles between aspiring generals.

Although early hopes of sudden liberalisation were dashed, Bashaar’s presidency has been reasonably popular. The economy has been growing, but the gap between rich and poor has grown too. Most Syrians struggle to get by, yet are not nearly as poor as those in Egypt’s slums. Foreign policy has not humiliated Syria’s national feelings, as was the case in Egypt.

But if Bashaar and his foreign minister pass the approval of many, his corrupt cousins and generals and secret policemen do not. And here’s the problem. In Egypt and Tunisia the army sided with the people against the regime, or at least the head of the regime. In Syria, the regime’s body is more vicious than its head. In any case, the Syrian army would not side with the people. The upper ranks would have too much to lose, and do not necessarily trust each other. Many of the middle and lower ranks, Alawis and other minorities, would also fear generalised revenge attacks against their communities, or sectarian Sunni rule, if the regime shook.

If it became possible, could a democracy do a better job of foreign policy? Almost definitely, yes – and I say so as someone who respects most of Syria’s foreign policy, certainly when compared to the foreign policies of other Arab regimes. A free civil space would permit committed, intelligent, articulate Syrians to organise against Zionism and imperialism. The West would not find it so easy to ignore a Syria with all its creative energies unleashed. And an economy free of large-scale corruption would give Syria more resources to fuel its battles.

Domestically, democracy could do a whole lot better. Syria is much safer than it has been, but barbarities still occur with prosaic regularity in police stations and prisons across the land. A recent example is the sad case of Tal al-Molouhi.

Syrians are sick of all that. And now they may have a brighter alternative than Iraq or Lebanon to brood upon. Egypt is closer to Syrian hearts than it seems on the map. If a democratic, non-sectarian Egypt reclaims its regional role, profound change in Syria will be a matter of time. They say Syria is fifteen years behind Egypt, but time is speeding up.

So the regime needs to get a move on. Bashaar has said, perhaps with some sincerity, that the difficult environment of his decade in power – wars in Iraq and Lebanon, Israeli attacks, targetting by neo-cons – was the factor which slowed reforms. But with the transformation in Egypt, the region is about to become much more hospitable to Syria. Reform in the new circumstances should be easy.

And also inescapable. Inspired by the larger Arab revolution (Syrians like to be at the forefront of any Arab revolutionary movement), people will increasingly demand to be treated fairly and humanely. That’s what they’re doing in the film above. This spontaneous and unprecedented demonstration in Hareeqa (in the Old City souq area) blew up after police beat a local man (explanation here). The Interior Minister turned up, a sign that the regime is acting with intelligence (when Mubarak went, Syrian TV very adroitly broadcast Jazeera’s live feed).

But more important than the regime response, the film shows the new mood – people demanding respect and dignity. They chant The Syrian People Won’t Be Humiliated. If there are more protests over local human rights issues – and there may well be – people may go on to demonstrate against corruption. If they ensure that their slogans are non-sectarian, and organise protests with people of all backgrounds, then sectarian fears will loosen, and much more becomes possible.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

February 19, 2011 at 12:44 am

7 Responses

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  1. God damn them who caused all this fuss and confusion we are living? every time a promising young man opens his mouth calling for any kind of change – wrong or right – he would be dragged into jail, or casted away killing all the possibilities of having another one in the picture in the people’s eyes.
    i do not care if a revolution brought a sectarian fragmentation, if this is the way syrians understand their syrianism, and wanna deal with it, then let it be..let them empty all the hatered they have within their hearts… i cannot picture how the situation would be in syr , if things remain the same in 10 years ahead, he has to open the air for another possibility, this whole procedures of shunning off syrians who have another say than him will drag the country to another libya or egypt. what if Allah took him now, what if he died for natural reasons, seriously WHAT IF! who is going to lead the country ..WHO?????


    February 19, 2011 at 9:07 am

  2. You care far too much about the vapish opinions of “certain quarters” my friend. There is a voice of conscience for Syria, but that voice does not belong to those who bark the loudest. Ultimately you do these self-publicists a favour when you address their criticisms and concerns on what is otherwise a serious and engaging blog.


    February 19, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    • This is a really good article. I totally agree with the fact that people fear sectarian violence and what it brings. After all we don’t want to end up like Iraq. But God knows what will happen. It is tantalising to be able to witness these historic changes in the area. Sometimes I just can’t believe what I am seeing. To finally see the shackles we have been burdened with for decades finally rattle and fall to the ground. The ‘voice of conscience’ is loud and clear and belongs to ALL who wish to see Syria flourish and bloom again and shake of the deadly weeds that grip it. The only self-publicist here is you Maysaloon, as you seem to attack anyone that yearns for change. I don’t want sectarian violence or for one group to rule at the expense of the other. I want justice, humanity, dignity, freedom of speech, for the young to have the opportunity to dream and to be able to fulfill those dreams in their home land. Its time that you realise that the only one barking absolute nonsense is you MAYSALOON!


      February 22, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    • it’s funny that the last piece on syria was loved by maysaloon and hated by farrah. this one is hated by maysaloon and loved by farrah. But I havent changed my opinions, i’ve just focussed on different things.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      March 22, 2011 at 6:56 pm

  3. Dont you think it is about time that you start rowing for shore and admit that you were very much in the wrong, when it came to saying that Syria was not ready for a Tunisia style Revolution!!! Do you still think that the Sryian population are appeased by the so called low profile ice cream parlour visits!!! Robin stop writing about every other Revolution in the region, and pen one for your homeland! You owe that much to the people!!!


    March 22, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    • Hello again, Farrah. If you go to PULSE you’ll see that I have posted someone else’s news of what’s happening in Syria. I very much intend to write about it myself. I’ve just now arrived in Egypt, and I expect to be very busy here. As soon as I have time, I will be writing about Syria. I will admit that events have moved faster than I expected when I wrote the piece you objected to. They’ve alsomoved much faster in Libya and Bahrain than I expected. I won’t ‘admit’ that Syria is ready fo a Tunisia style revolution, however, because Syria is split by sect unlike Tunisia, because Syria is next to Israel, because the military in syria won’t side with the people against the president as they did in Tunisia, because Tunisia is not located between the disastrous sectrian ‘democracies’ of Iraq and Lebanon. I expect you will interpret my words once agiain to mean that I don’t want change in syria and that i’m happy with the police state. That is not what I’m saying. I hope you can see that.

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      March 22, 2011 at 6:53 pm

      • Hello Robin, its been nearly a year now, and surely it is time to admit defeat and declare that what we are witnessing in Syria is by far more astounding than what occurred in Tunisia or Egypt put together. It pains me to think that we have suffered this for such a long time, but as a Syrian that is very much aware of the brutality of the state it was always at the back of my mind that we would not obtain our freedom easily. All the so called illusions of democracy and reform that Bashar and is Lady Di imatating wife tried to force onto the nation have come crumbling down to expose their true monstrous realities. But still to witness the carnage and blood shed is beyond anything a person could imagine. Im lucky to be abroad, but on going to Damascus in the summer I went to the Rif3i Mosque in Kafer Sousseh on Laylat al Qader, and l dont think l will ever forget the sight of near enough 1000 thugs baying for the blood of the men that were inside chanting in the loudest of voices towards the skies, that God may hear and grant victory and freedom. Or the night l saw Asma Assad waltzing through the Gemini Club in Saboura surrounded by her thugs, where she was apparently holding a dinner for disabled children. The very night that Ali Ferzat was found beaten up by the road! Our so called Lady Di appeared nonchalant and brazen as ever with her inner crowd circling her cooing at her every word…sickening. Those who longed for the Arab Spring, those who denied it would ever reach, and those who desperately tried to prevent it….we are all in awe at what is happenning.


        February 20, 2012 at 2:15 pm

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